Local resident shares story of path to recovery after addiction
A look at moment he realized he could go on living without drugs
HOUSTON – On a quiet street in Houston's suburbs, a boy from Canada with big dreams would find himself on a path that nearly led him to his grave.
"It's ruthless. It takes you. It doesn't care," Joshua Steenburg said. "It will put you right in your grave if you let it."
Steenburg was in second grade when his family moved to Texas.
"Being Canadian, I always had that dream to go play professional hockey, and that's really what I wanted to do in my life," Steenburg said. "You know, I wanted to ... go to college, get drafted, live this perfect life."
He played, his dad coached, and he seemed to be skating right through school, making friends, adapting to his new home. But in high school, things changed.
"I began smoking marijuana, hanging out with, you know, the wrong crowd of people. And, you know, I began partying," Steenburg said. "My grades started slipping."
Steenburg lost sight of his goals and his parents noticed.
"I noticed he would sleep a lot or be in his room a lot," said his mother, Jennifer Steenburg.
"His demeanor, the way he acted at home, he pulled more away from his brothers. He didn't want to be with us as much anymore," said his father, Mike Sorrell.
"We kind of lost our son. He wasn't part of the family anymore," Jennifer Steenburg said.
Stay informed on the latest updates on the epidemic. Subscribe to our Opioid Nation newsletter.
Joshua Steenburg only wanted to be with his friends, who after high school introduced him to a new high.
"You know, at first I was really scared. I was, like, I don't know what this is. But they were like, 'You're going to love it,'" Steenburg said. "They knew more about, you know, these other drugs. More advanced, I guess you could say. Like ecstasy and mushrooms. And you know, that lasted a little bit. It wasn't really my thing. Like, I loved doing it, but it just, it didn't feel right."
He went back to weed, drinking and then got a job working on oil rigs, making good money.
"I'd have thousands of dollars. And, you know, I'm 19, 20 years old, like, what could I possibly buy, you know? Let's have fun," Steenburg said. "My friends and everything, they were talking about these cocktails. And you know, you first, you think you refer to, like, a cocktail as a drink. But, no, it was (a) mixture of pills. And I remember the first one and it was that warm feeling, it was that fuzzy, comfortable, just, I wouldn't call it a rush, but, you know, it just felt right."
It didn't take long before Steenburg's tolerance built up, and he needed more to get the same feeling.
"We were taking maybe about 50, 60 pills, you know, a day," Steenburg said.
He then turned to oxycontin to help get him through each day.
"It's more money, but it's more bang for your buck," Steenburg said.
He recalls his friend telling him the bang would be even greater if he snorted it.
"I felt the room spinning, um, it was that same warm feeling that I got from the first cocktail I ever had. But it was 10 times greater than that," Steenburg said. "And that was, like, my first time that I knew what love was."
Steenburg and his friend found themselves stealing from the people closest to them to fund their new love.
"We stole from work, from friends, family, you know, you start going to the pawn shops more," Steenburg said.
Steenburg said some minor legal trouble led to his first stint in rehab and his first admission to his mom that he had a problem.
"It was a very emotional moment for her because she had just found out I was taking painkillers. And you know, that I'm depressed because I'm not playing hockey anymore. And you know, that I hate my life because I feel like I'm the biggest failure," Steenburg said.
Steenburg would fail at rehab on his first go around.
"I actually relapsed in the rehab," Steenburg said. "Somebody brought something in and I was sitting outside smoking a cigarette out there and they handed it to me. And I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I'll take that.'"
While not sober, Steenburg scaled back. He worked. He renewed some healthier friendships.
"There was one guy, who was right there with me every day, like he wanted to help me. He was just a good guy," Steenburg said. "We knew each other from high school. So he was kind of like my wingman, my rock."
Unfortunately, Steenburg's rock and his world would crumble on one fateful night.
"And then, on -- OK, this is where it gets hard," Steenburg said.
Tragedy leads to relapse
Steenburg seemingly was moving beyond the chapter of his life that was centered around drugs, partly thanks to the support of a good friend.
He called him his "Rock." They'd hang out often. Things were going well.
"There was one night, we were like, 'Oh, let's go to Whataburger.' He actually said, OK. So he hopped on his motorcycle, no helmet, and he pulled out of the neighborhood, zoomed out, zoomed in, hit the curb, flew head first doing about 60 mph into a stop sign," Steenburg said. "So it was just a really crazy event that just kind of, you know, I remember holding his head while we were trying to give him CPR, and there was just a police officer standing there watching, saying, EMS is on their way.
"Everybody else in the background is screaming, crying. And EMS gets there, and they say, they put the defibrillator on him and say, 'You can let go of his neck. He's dead.' I lost it that night. And I didn't really care what happened to me anymore. It never gets easier. That night, kind of, just transitioned me to, it was like I said, I felt like I died that night, too."
After a period of sobriety, that night Steenburg said he began to down pills again, and then eventually turned to heroin.
"Only certain people knew about my usage. My parents weren't one of them," Steenburg said.
Steenburg held down a retail job, primarily to pay for his addiction.
"It's one of those things -- you work to get high, you get high to work," Steenburg said. "The more, the more I sell, the more I get. I just really wanted more. So I started buying. I found a dealer, like that. It started out like a weekly thing, but it always turns into a daily thing, and then an hourly thing.
"Every single dollar that I got went to heroin. I would go to the gas station, and I would steal Rice Krispie treats because I didn't want to buy food, because that's $5 that could have gone to heroin. My car, the front brakes, every time I'd press down on the brake pad, it would go straight down. It wouldn't stop, which is like a $100 fix. I was driving on the highway using my emergency brake to stop, which is very insane. You have no idea how dangerous and deadly that is. Not only for me, but somebody else in the car.
"Anything could have happened. But, it's a $100 fix. But that's $100. That's almost a gram of heroin. It was just my life. It revolved around it. I had no control over it. I dug a little deeper, and dug a little bit deeper, and it didn't seem like I was going to put the shovel down anytime soon."
The hole Steenburg was digging finally hit rock bottom -- three years ago -- when his mom found him passed out on her front porch after taking a shot of heroin.
"I came home and he was passed out in the middle of the porch in the summer. I put him to bed," his mother said. "We decided to have our intervention."
"My mom says, 'We want to know everything.' I said, 'I'm a heroin addict. I can't stop. It's too powerful. It just has this grip on me and I can't beat it,'" Steenburg said. "I looked over, she started crying, and I told her, 'Why do you think I wear long-sleeve shirts in the summer in the middle of Texas?'"
"His arms were all marked up. I'm a nurse for 20 years and I didn't see any signs," his mother said. "They said hold a piece of paper up to your nose. When you're that close to the situation, you can't see clearly. I didn't see any of it. I felt like it was my fault."
Rock bottom, then recovery
During the intervention, Steenburg recalls how upset his mother was and how calm his father was.
"He's sitting right next to me on my left and he says, 'You're right, you're not, it is stronger. You're not ready. You can't beat it. Not right now. But you know, day by day you're going to get better and you're going to get stronger. You will beat this,'" Steenburg said. "He said, 'I already have ... everything set. Will you go to rehab? Will you get help?' ... It was just, like, whatever, I guess I've got to do this. So I said, 'Yeah, you know, let's go.'"
Another shot at clean living began that day, not just for Steenburg, but also for his parents.
"When we walked out, he said, 'How do you feel?' I said, 'We just locked up my son. How do you think I feel?'" his mother said. "He said, 'I feel like I'm walking on the moon.'"
"I did," his father said. "That was the best night's sleep because I knew where he was that night, that was the first night I was (not) going to get called that he was dead or in jail."
Steenburg was admitted to Memorial Hermann's Prevention and Recovery Center, known as PARC.
"The way that opioids work on the receptors in the brain, it's such that it creates that need. It's almost like food and water and other requirements of living. It's very powerful," said Matt Feehery, senior vice president and CEO of Memorial Hermann's Prevention and Recovery Center. "It starts to impact family, it starts to impact professional and other areas of your life. What we're trying to do is figure that out and put those things back together."
For Steenburg, putting things back together began with a difficult detoxification period and talking about how he got there.
"I was ready to leave. I was looking at a fence. Just like, I should hop it," Steenburg said. "I'm just so over this. It's not working. I'm never going to change."
That's when a woman at the center suggested he pray.
"I was, like, I don't pray. I'm not religious," Steenburg said.
But he did it anyway.
"So I put my head down, and I closed my eyes," Steenburg said. "I remember subconsciously just saying, please just give me a sign. Just something."
At that point, he was called in for a group session.
"I walk in. I'm just like, alright, whatever, just one more meeting," Steenburg said.
Seconds later came his sign.
"This guy comes up and says, 'My name's Bob. I'm an alcoholic addict and I'm Canadian. I love playing hockey and I loved pills," Steenburg said. "And I'm like, wait, I'm Canadian, I love hockey and I used to love pills, but now I love heroin."
It was the connection Steenburg needed to realize he could go on living without drugs. Bob became his sponsor and Steenburg became a more active participant in his recovery.
"I'm going to do this because I'm not a number. I'm not a statistic," Steenburg said.
Steenburg succeeded at staying sober, and after months, at appreciating each day of being alive.
"A lot of what prevents people from dealing with this problem is they don't feel like they can live effectively without it, but here's the reality, most of the people who are in that stage are not living effectively with it. It's really interrupting their life, their quality of life, their family, their finances, their hope."
Through PARC, Steenburg finally felt hope again and returned to what he truly loved: the ice rink and teaching kids how to play hockey.
He said his employer and the parents of kids he teaches know what he's overcome.
"Just that joy and satisfaction of helping children learn how to play this game that I used to love. Hearing the parents talking. In the back of my mind I'm, like, 'Oh my god, I'm a heroin addict. You just told me that your kid just called me a role model,'" Steenburg said. "They're like, 'We don't see you as that. You're just this amazing guy who our kid loves.' That's basically where I'm at today. I take it one day at a time. I'm grateful to be alive. I'm grateful to have my friends and my family."
Family members support him, even though after three years, they still worry.
"Now the hardest part, knowing every day, is he going to stay sober?" his mother said. "There are still days that I call him just to do, 'Hey are you OK? You still good? You still sober? And he knows, he laughs and says, 'Yeah mom, I'm still good.'"
"I don't think I'll ever stop looking for the warning signs," his father said. "I don't think it'll matter if it's two years or 20 years, I'll still be looking for it."
Steenburg's parents warn others not to look the other way if they notice signs of addiction.
"Watch who your kid is hanging out with, who they're talking to, corresponding with or on the internet," his father said.
Steenburg and his family are grateful his life story continues.
"He's on the path. I think he's got a ways to go, but, one day at a time," his father said.
And they now look forward to the future.
"I have my son back," Steenburg's mother said. "He was just back to being his charming funny self, son that I had. He's just so loveable, he's what I remember. It's so much fun having him back."
Copyright 2017 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.